Behavioral health issues at heart of study plan

Schools too often deal with disruptive, inappropriate or violent behavior

By BILAL SULEIMAN
ND Newspaper Association

Waylon Hedegaard knocked on about 300 teachers’ doors in all the major cities in North Dakota last summer. Out of those 300 teachers, about 250 brought up safety and behavioral issues, unprompted, as their biggest concerns, Hedegaard said.
Hedegaard, president of the North Dakota AFL-CIO, stumbled upon a behavioral problem that educators across the state say they have been dealing with more and more often in recent years.
Senate Concurrent Resolution 4004, introduced by Sen. Erin Oban, D-Bismarck, would have the state study the impact of disruptive, inappropriate and violent behavior in classrooms over the next biennium and determine the need for a uniform reporting system. The resolution passed the Senate Jan. 23 and now awaits approval from the House.
While school officials and lawmakers believe that behavioral disruptions are a significant problem, they say there is no way to measure the scope of the problem or how widespread it may be.
“There are so many things we don’t know, and what we do know is all anecdotal,” Alexis Baxley, executive director of the North Dakota School Boards Association, said in an interview. “We certainly know that it’s a growing problem.”
In separate interviews, a variety of people involved in education across the state said the issue concerns them.
Lyndsi Engstrom, program director of the Mid Dakota Educational Cooperative based in Minot, says that the behavioral health crisis is not unique to large school districts, and Sue Gunderson-Kranz, principal of Des Lacs-Burlington Elementary with 25 years of educational experience under her belt, agrees.
Gunderson-Kranz was the principal and superintendent at Powers Lake Public School, a K-12 school with around 200 students, before taking her current position at Des Lacs-Burlington Elementary, a K-8 school with around 500 students. She said that disruptive behavior has been a problem at both schools despite the difference in student population.
Jennifer Modeen, a school social worker at Winship Elementary in Grand Forks, says that rural school districts may struggle to deal with disruptive behavioral issues even more than a larger district like Grand Forks. “They have less resources than we do,” Modeen said.
While the problem is widespread, school officials say it’s hard to pinpoint a specific cause for the increase in disruptive behavior. Factors that Engstrom cites are that educators are better at identifying behavior problems than in the past, and districts are better at keeping students in the classroom, whereas before they would have skipped class or stayed home.
“I can’t name just one thing but as a culture, as a whole, things have just shifted,” Gunderson- Kranz said. Overstimulation through video games and TV might play a role, she added, as well as heavy demands placed on parents.
“You see a lot more single-parent families than when I grew up. I was one of those for a while. It’s just harder to parent when there’s only one of you, especially when you have that strong- willed child,” Gunderson-Kranz said.
Kim Gaugler, president of the school board at Beach Public Schools, says lack of parenting is an issue for some students in her district.
“Some kids are raising themselves,” Gaugler said.
The precise cause remains unclear. However, it is the behavior itself which is the most concerning to school officials. Gunderson-Kranz described an example of a typical incident at her elementary school.
“It often starts with a refusal, something they don’t want to do. It could be ‘I don’t want to change my shoes for Phy. Ed, I don’t want to do that worksheet, I wanted to use this pencil instead of that pencil.’ So that’s usually how these things are triggered, by a refusal to do something and then it escalates from there,” Gunderson-Kranz said.
“I see more defiance, more insubordination. They might run away, just down the hallway, not necessarily from the school. Or just violence: kicking, ripping up papers, breaking a pencil. Some of them are as young as kindergarteners.”
While most students are well behaved and not exhibiting inappropriate behavior, a disruption from one student can have a negative effect on the whole class.
“We’re concerned about the students who are losing 20-30 minutes of class time every time this happens,” Baxley said. “Certainly, it’s a loss of opportunity for learning.”
To reduce the amount of negative behavior, schools across the state have implemented Social Emotional Learning (SEL) into their curriculum to help educate students in areas such as empathy, emotional management, and self-awareness.
Modeen sees these “soft skills” as being essential for students. “When you invest on a preventative level, it can make a huge impact,” she said.
During testimony, Sen. Oban, also an educator, said she hopes that the data collected by a uniform reporting system will shed more light on behavioral issues in classrooms and provide legislators with more information on how to respond to the changing educational landscape.